HIS ROYAL RUDENESS; the Debauched Court of the Stuarts Demands a Closer Look Than the Current Peepshow at Hampton Court Palace Allows EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Sewell

THE WILD, THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED Hampton Court Palace [bar] ROM the vast rambling shambles of Hampton Court Palace it is easy to depart dispirited. There is too much of it. With too many architects over too many centuries there has been too much superimposition of too many styles. In brick Tudor, half-hearted Low Renaissance and tentative Baroque, it was under almost continuous extension, revision and embellishment from its foundation in 1515 until Queen Victoria, within months of her accession, opened it to the public in 1838. For three-quarters of the 16th century it was occupied by Tudor monarchs, then the Stuarts throughout the 17th, and by the first two upstart Hanoverian Georges; in 1760 the third George abandoned it. All three dynasties left their stamp on it in some degree, the later Stuarts, with Christopher Wren their architect, most handsomely; it is thus, with a special exhibition devoted to Stuart morals, that the Palace authorities seek to enliven the visitor's traipse through these many state rooms, private quarters and corridors of ancient privilege.

Every schoolboy knows that the Restoration -- the reign of Charles II after the interregnum of Oliver Cromwell and his warts -- was immoral and that for the quarter-century of his reign he and his courtiers were addicted to licentious ribaldry, gambling, alcohol and random sex. They mocked restraint, used language that was frank and undisguised, and their humour ranged from the delicately improper to the gross and foul. They were aware of disapproval outside the Court -- publishers of pornography were prosecuted before magistrates and customs officers consigned imported French dildoes to the flames -- but they flouted it. If their immorality is to be excused as a reaction against the Puritanism of Cromwell then their protest lasted too long and plunged too deep into the well of licence, obscenity and vice. Nor can French influence be blamed -- as often it is -- for when young Charles settled in Paris in 1652, exiled and the pensioner of Louis XIV, he was reported to have taken up his 17th mistress; as he was then only 22 and had been fighting Cromwell's forces for three years, this suggests that his promiscuity began and developed unhindered in England as an adolescent. Francoise de Motteville, in her Memoires of the time, described Charles as "...well made, with a swarthy complexion agreeing well with his fine black eyes, a large ugly mouth, a graceful and dignified carriage and a fine figure" -- at more than six feet tall something of a catch.

George Savile, Marquess of Halifax, the King's immediate contemporary, later wrote that his master's "inclinations to love were the effects of health and good condition, with as little mixture of the seraphic part as ever man had... his stayed in the lower region" -- an observation to be understood by every schoolboy. The boy who digs a little deeper, beyond debauchery and prostitution, finds perversion, syphilis, sodomy and the Signor Dildoe of whom the Earl of Rochester quipped, "This Signor is sound, safe and dumb/As ever was candle, carrot and thumb."

When this exhibition was announced late last year I thought it a proper and ingenious use of the history of art, reaching beyond art and architecture to the literature, manners and morals of the 17th century, noting that visitors might, out of hours and for [pounds sterling]25, take "Salacious Gossip Tours" that would whiten the whiskers of any maiden aunt. Anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with the verse of Rochester, a towering figure in this context, will know how frank he was, not only with the vulgar vernacular for sexual parts, but with the very acts in which they are employed. He who reads Rochester knows at once that it was not only the King who had no seraphic (a word used by Pepys to imply the spiritual nature of a great sermon) feeling for women, but that every man's desire Continued on Page 48

Continued from Page 47 was rooted in his "lower region", and, in the absence of a woman, might satisfy himself with a boy. …